Marouane Fellaini, of late, has impressed.
He has always looked awkward at United. The problem is that he has been a cause of awkwardness for his own teammates as much as he has been for the opposition. The ungainliness, the elbows and the height have all combined to distract players in the opposition penalty area, and also concede fouls and possession in the defensive half for his own side.
But none of that discounts a noticeable improvement since the turn of the year. The awkwardness is still there, but the mistakes have been cut down, and the passing has improved. At Everton, he was still capable of assisting in attack, and he is not quite the blunt tool (emphasis on the latter) that he has been seen as at Old Trafford.
However, at United, there are plenty of players who promise and then hugely disappoint. Ander Herrera seems an excellent, constructive presence in midfield only to make a ricket. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have both appeared to be the future of United’s central defence only to collapse into incompetence and weakness.
Anthony Martial was brilliant, then absent for most of this season. Fellaini has fallen victim to the same problem. The yellow card to trip Sergio Aguero was fair enough, a sensible sacrifice. The trip a few seconds later was pushing but he probably would have avoided things given Martin Atkinson’s history of leniency in the Manchester derby. But then, the headbutt, and what can you do?
Monreal too little too late for Arsenal
Leicester, under Craig Shakespeare, are not quite the equal of their Claudio Ranieri vintage, but they aren’t a disgraceful distance away. They can harm you on the counterattack, and just as importantly, they believe they can harm you. Belief, after all, is a vital thing. In football, and every other walk of life, the mind can give you a huge advantage or leave you blubbering in your pants, under a tepid shower at four in the morning. Probably. That is what Arsenal all too clearly know. They might not have found themselves sitting down in a hot jet of water crying their eyes out, but it would hardly have been a surprise if the thought hadn’t crossed Arsene Wenger or Alexis Sanchez’s minds.
Monreal’s winner for Leicester, courtesy of an enormous deflection and no lack of effort from the defender, isn’t enough for Arsenal. The life of the mind is such that Arsenal will already have failure programmed in like muscle memory. It’s sad for both Wenger and the fans, but the club have entered into the ninth dead cat bounce.
Christian Eriksen becomes essential
By now, even the most mediocre football blogger has started to recognise that Christian Eriksen is no longer a fine-haired efreet, wasting possession in the channels and having an unacceptably high hairstyle. The passes into the box, and the shots from distance are flying in more often than before.
Eriksen is the kind of player that, were they to join Liverpool in before 2009 or Spurs before 2014, become absolutely nothing. The usual terminology is a ‘luxury player’, but more accurately it can be described as a player with talent, an unusual way of approaching the game, but unable to fit into the requirements of modern football. That was Eriksen for a while, and Danish supporters doubted his ability to make the most of his potential.
There are still years to come of his career, but as yet another decisive intervention for Spurs shows, this can be anticipated not with trepidation, but with optimism. Eriksen is that rare thing, for now at least – a luxury player who has become essential to his side.
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Chelsea normal service is resumed
Spurs have tried. Liverpool, briefly, tried before they were consumed by Jurgen Klopp’s hubris and the squad’s mediocrity. Manchester City looked like they would be the champions for a few weeks, when they played some exceptionally beguiling football. But it was only Spurs who seemed like they would be able to push Chelsea a little bit of the way.
Chelsea had the advantage of an excellent, inspiring manager who jiggled his side into a balanced formation, and made the most of the squad at his disposal. There is no manager who has done that as well as Conte, and he has had the advantage of an absence of European football, keeping his squad fresh despite participation all the way into the final of the FA Cup.
Nevertheless, because this is football, there is nearly always a wobble of some kind. As Manchester United, Newcastle, Arsenal and others have shown, a lead isn’t always an easy thing to take advantage of as the pressure grows. Chelsea, too, stuttered, and the defeat to Manchester United gave Spurs the hope that they could drag down the team they chased. Five games, four points left. The victory over Southampton will have calmed any nerves, if not entirely.
David Moyes somehow fails to inspire Sunderland
David Moyes hinted soon after taking the job at Sunderland that he had been misled in the interview process. There wasn’t the money that he had been expecting, and instead had to bring in players such as Donald Love, who nobody actually believes really exist. He also said that Sunderland were in a relegation fight, making no attempt to pretend that he was aiming any higher than 17th for the season ahead.
That is the type of manager Moyes has become since his appointment as Manchester United manager. He would be pretty honest, but ignorant of what it would do to the players or fans watching. There were plenty of reasons to think Sunderland would struggle, but he gave everyone new ones – they had no money, they lied to their manager, and even he didn’t think they had much chance of staying up. He might not have meant any of that, or meant it to sound like that, but his careless approach to the media made it seem as if he did.
Against Middlesbrough, Sunderland the chance to face up to a team almost as bad as they were. And they lost, despite Jermain Defoe. Sunderland have a manager, fans, players and owner who have no belief in their prospects. It is sometimes said that relegation will do a club good, as a way to cleanse the mistakes and rebuild. When it comes to Sunderland it might appear more sensible to just give up entirely.